Improving language disorders with technology

Logopedy/read/telepractice, boys, girls, reading
Teresa Bau
This coming 30 September, Spanish-speaking countries are celebrating International Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) Awareness Day. DLDs are oral language development disorders affecting expression and comprehension that cause problems in social development and school learning.

The eHealth Center, the UOC’s e-health research centre, promotes research into this disorder with technological tools.


Harnessing technology to improve detection, assessment and intervention in children with language disorders is the main goal of GRECIL, the Cognition and Language Research Group affiliated to the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's (UOC) eHealth Center and led by researcher and UOC Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences professor Lloren Andreu.

Andreu leads the NeuroDevelop eHealth Lab, which forms part of the eHealth Center, with the collaboration of a group of neuropsychology professionals from Sant Joan de Du Barcelona Hospital. The team works on the assessment and treatment of the communication skills of children with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as developmental language disorder (DLD) itself, dyslexia, dysgraphia, intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Andreu's group uses primarily two types of device: Kinect, which records the patient's body movements and voice and enables them to interact with a computer, and eye trackers, which record what patients are looking at. "These devices open up huge possibilities for speech therapists, enabling them to use the signals gathered and design applications to treat speech and language issues," explained the researcher.

Azure Kinect, a tool with great health potential

The NeuroDevelop eHealth Lab uses Azure Kinect in its research. According to Andreu, this tool, which was released by Microsoft in 2019, has "great potential in the field of health". Fitted with two cameras, a microphone and a sensor, it can recognize objects, movements and sounds. It also records information such as pronunciation time and accuracy, for example whether words are pronounced in full or the accuracy of each syllable. In addition to recording this information, the device allows you to design gamified applications for intensive play-based learning to help children with neurodevelopmental disorders. 

Andreu said: "The device allows you to recognize the patient's voice, body movements and hand gestures. This opens up a whole host of possibilities for the creation of treatment programmes combining working on communication skills with motor activities and the ability to do both comprehension and production exercises."

Kinect devices are also used for recovering patients who are undergoing motor rehabilitation, such as those who have suffered a stroke. In the researcher's opinion, one of the main factors hindering the clinical implementation of these devices is "a lack of user-centred applications." According to him, another obstacle is the fact that both Kinect and eye tracking systems "require advanced computer skills in order to program them and analyse their results. We therefore need comprehensive digital solutions that enable professionals to easily create activities and exercises and analyse their results. Achieving this could easily lead to the widespread use of these tools." 

The significance of eye gaze in comprehension

Eye trackers use low-frequency infrared rays that create two reflections in the cornea. This enables them to detect where on the screen the patient's eyes are focusing. Since people look at the visual references of any items being named or mentioned, eye trackers can be used to assess a person's comprehension by showing them related images while they're listening to something being narrated. These devices can also provide a useful tool for people with reduced mobility, enabling them to communicate by moving the cursor on a computer with their eyes.

Andreu believes that eye trackers "don't have as much potential for application in clinical practice as Kinect devices. Their function appears to be more that of a language disorder diagnosis tool than a potential tool for therapy". And the main obstacle hindering their large-scale implementation is, once again, the lack of applications making them easier to use by professionals. 

Funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation

The NeuroDevelop eHealth Lab project, led by Lloren Andreu, has received funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation I+D+i 2020 grants programme. Andreu's study is one of nine UOC research projects to receive funding from the Ministry's recent call for proposals.


The eHealth Center

The eHealth Center's mission is to foster e-health research across all disciplines in the UOC in order to become an agent of social change that will drive the transformation of the health system. 

UOC experts

Photograph of Lloren Andreu Barrachina

Lloren Andreu Barrachina

Professor in the Psychology and Education Sciences Department
Director of the university master's degree in Learning Disabilities and Language Disorders

Expert in: Language acquisition and development; learning disabilities; language disorders.

Knowledge area: Educational psychology.

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